Capital, Claudian Auxiliary Fort, Fort, Hadrianic Legionary Fort and Palace
Londinium, modern day London was the capital of Roman Britain during most of the period of Roman rule. It was originally a settlement established on the current site of the City of London around AD 47–50. It sat at a key crossing point over the River Thames which turned the city into a road nexus and major port, serving as a major commercial centre in Roman Britain until its abandonment during the 5th century.
Following the foundation of the town in the mid-1st century, early Londinium occupied the relatively small area of 1.4 km2, roughly half the area of the modern City of London and equivalent to the size of present-day Hyde Park. In the year 60 or 61, the rebellion of the Iceni under Boudica compelled the Roman forces to abandon the settlement, which was then razed. Following the defeat of Boudica by the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus a military installation was established and the city was rebuilt. It had probably largely recovered within about a decade. During the later decades of the 1st century, Londinium expanded rapidly, becoming Britannia’s largest city, and it was provided with large public buildings such as a forum and amphitheatre. By the turn of the century, Londinium had grown to perhaps 30,000 or 60,000 people, almost certainly replacing Camulodunum (Colchester) as the provincial capital, and by the mid-2nd century Londinium was at its height. Its forum-basilica was one of the largest structures north of the Alps when the Emperor Hadrian visited Londinium in 122. Excavations have discovered evidence of a major fire that destroyed much of the city shortly thereafter, but the city was again rebuilt. By the second half of the 2nd century, Londinium appears to have shrunk in both size and population.
Although Londinium remained important for the rest of the Roman period, no further expansion resulted. Londinium supported a smaller but stable settlement population as archaeologists have found that much of the city after this date was covered in dark earth—the by-product of urban household waste, manure, ceramic tile, and non-farm debris of settlement occupation, which accumulated relatively undisturbed for centuries. Some time between 190 and 225, the Romans built a defensive wall around the landward side of the city. The London Wall survived for another 1,600 years and broadly defined the perimeter of the old City of London.
Classical References to Londinium
The standard second century geographical reference work by Claudius Ptolemaeus, mentions both the town of Londinium (vide infra) and the Tamesa Aestuarium (the Thames Estuary), on the upper reaches of which the settlement was located.
Next to these,¹ but farther eastward, are the Canti² among whom are the towns: Londinium 20*00 54? Darvernum 21*00 54? Rutupie 21*45 54?.³
- The Atrebates tribe of Hampshire and Berkshire.
- The Cantiaci tribe inhabited Cantium (Kent). This is curious, for London is generally thought to have been located in the territories of the Catuvellauni.
- These three towns are, respectively; London, Canterbury, and Richborough, the latter two being in Kent.
The work which best describes the location of Londinium is the Antonine Itinerary, an official imperial document of the late-second century which listed many of the major road routes of the Roman empire, fifteen of them in Britain, over half of which mention Londinium.
Part XI – The Count of the Sacred Bounties
Under the control of the illustrious count of the sacred bounties: … The accountant of the general tax of the Britains. Provosts of the storehouses: … In the Britains: The provost of the storehouses at London. … Procurators of the weaving-houses: … The procurator of the weaving-house at Winchester in Britain. …”
London also appears in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century as Londinium Augusti (R&C#97), which appears between the entries for Verulamium (St. Albans, Hertfordshire) and Caesaromagus ( Chelmsford, Essex).
Epigraphic Evidence from London
RIB1 - Dedication to Mithras
There are thirty-nine Latin inscriptions on stone recorded in the R.I.B. for London, about a fifth of which are fragmentary or otherwise illegible. A selection of the more interesting inscriptions are presented on this page, under several categories; the Roman military presence in London, the gods and religious institutions, also military and civilian tombstones.
The Claudian Encampment
A length of an early camp ditch was found at Fenchurch Street (Britannia 18 (1987) p.333; Brit. 20 (1989) pp.305-6) and Duke’s Place (Brit. 4 (1973) p.306), evidence suggests that the ditch was filled-in soon after it was dug. There is room on the east hill for a camp of no more than c.75 acres (30.5ha), which is slightly more than half the size of the enclosure at Richborough. Because of this, it has been suggested that another large camp was erected near the Westminster Crossing, probably somewhere near Hyde Park.
The Roman Military
The only type of Roman military unit attested on stone at London are those of the Legions, even though it is generally thought that an auxiliary unit was stationed here nothing ‘concrete’ has been turned up. Three of Britain’s legions are represented at London, The Second Augusta is attested on an altar dedicated to the god Mithras and on two tombstones of former soldiers from the legion (respectively, RIB 3, 17 & 19), one of them dated to the first quarter of the third century, the Twentieth Legion is represented by another two tombstones (RIB 13 & 18), and the Victorious Sixth is mentioned only on a single funerary inscription (RIB 11). All of these Latin texts are detailed and translated separately below.
Legio Secundae Augusta – The Second Augustan Legion
RIB17 - Funerary inscription for Vivius Marcianus
ANO 𐆛 ❦ LEG II
RIB19 - Funerary inscription for Celsus
R L F C[...] CELSV[...]
[4  ]PEC LEG [...  ]VG AṆ
[...]N DARDANVS CV[...]
S PROBVS SP[...]C L[...]
Legio Sextae Victrix – The Sixth Victorious Legion
RIB11 - Funerary inscription for Flavius Agricola
FL AGRICOLA MIL
LEG VI VICT V AN
XLII D X ALBIA
Legio Vicesimae Valeria Victrix – The Twentieth Legion, Valiant and Victorius
RIB13 - Funerary inscription for Julius Valens
MIL LEG XX V V
AN XL H S E C A FLAVIO
RIB18 - Fragmentary funerary inscription
LEG XX [   ]
The Gods of Roman London
RIB2 - Dedication to the Mother Goddesses
VICINIA DE SVO RES[...]
RIB5 - Dedication to the Divinity of the Emperor
The Temple of Mithras
RIB3 - Dedication to Mithras
RIB4 - Dedication to Mithras and the Invincible Sun
[...  .] AD [...]ENTEM
The Temple of Isis
A temple to the great Egyptian goddess Isis was tantalizingly suggested by the discovery of an earthenware jug at Southwark on the opposite side of the Thames from the Londinium settlement, close to the line of the Watling Street through Cantium. This object was inscribed with the words LONDINI AD FANVM ISIDIS or “From London at the temple of Isis“, and has been dated to the latter half of the second century. It was not until the mid-1970’s that a Roman altarstone dedicated to the goddess was finally discovered (vide RIB 39b infra).
Possible Apsidal Temple
Aside from the famous temple of Mithras and the suspected temples of Isis and Camulos Mars detailed above, a possible temple is thought to have lain beneath the south-west corner of the 2nd-century forum/basilica, and obviously predated these monumental public buildings. The building is rectangular, measuring about 60 ft. by 34 ft. (c.18.3 x 10.4), with a squarish apse at its northern end. The walls of the building were an almost-uniform 3 ft. thick throughout, including a dividing wall which bisected the building into two, a squat rectangular room to the south had an entrance in its east side, and a portal in the partition wall led through to a square room at the north end with a projecting apse. This building is thought to be an apsidal shrine to some unknown deity.
Civilian and Military Tombstones
Of the five inscriptions shown in the table above, RIB 16 is a scarcophagus, RIB 22 is a base of some sort, RIB 10 is undefined and the other two are tombstones.
The History of Roman London
The settlement of Londinium was established shortly after the Claudian invasion in the summer of 43AD. The first Roman building was an Auxiliary Fort, built on the north bank of the Thames to the east of the Walbrook on the instructions of the military governor Aulus Plautius. The fort was established to guard the northern end of a wooden bridge which had been rapidly built across the Thames between Southwark and the north bank, also to secure the western flank during the Roman push eastwards against the British capital at Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex).
A civilian settlement comprised of the soldiers dependents, assorted native tradesmen and foreign merchants soon developed to the east of the Walbrook outside the defences of the fort, which was itself demolished after only a short period of use, probably before the 50AD’s, as the Roman military campaigns were extended into the Midlands and Wales. Though unprotected, the settlement had become well established as an important provincial town by the time the Iceni and the Trinovantes tribes rose in revolt in the winter of 60/61AD and destroyed the colony at Colchester, fifty miles from London. At the time, the governor Suetonius Paulinus was campaigning on the Isle of Anglesey, over two-hundred miles away.
London Razed During the Boudiccan Revolt
Suetonius, however, with wonderful resolution, marched amidst a hostile population to Londinium, which, though undistinguished by the name of a colony, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels.
Upon hearing of the uprising to his rear, the Roman legate immediately gathered together all the legionary and auxiliary forces as he could possibly spare from the Midlands and Wales, then marched south-east to counter the rebel force. Despite his swift response, he was unable to stop the ravaging horde from falling upon defenceless London. The revolting natives razed the entire town to the ground. All who did not flee were massacred, their severed heads thown into the Walbrook stream. Chaos reigned throughout the South-East. Suetonius was forced to retreat back along the Watling Street, surrendering also the thriving town of Verulamium to the rebels as he fled north-west into the Midlands. Here however, as the unruly revolutionaries were delighting in rapine and destruction, he was able to concentrate his forces and a short time afterwards engineered a crushing defeat on the combined British army outside Manduessedum (Mancetter, Warwickshire).
Following the revolt, the province of Britain was very nearly surrendered by Rome, but the emperor Nero was turned from this course of action by the arguments of his advisor and former tutor Seneca, who had invested a lot of money in Britain and would have suffered financially if Rome were not to retain the island. As a result of Seneca’s persuasive arguments, Julius Classicanus was appointed to the post of procurator of Britain. This was a non-military position whose main role was to restore economic order in the war-torn province. Classicianus was to succeed in his appointment but died in late 61AD, his body cremated and his ashes placed in a small tomb along with containers of food outside the Roman town boundary at Tower Hill, where the fragments of his tomb were later discovered (vide RIB 12 infra).
RIB12 - Funerary inscription for Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus
[...  ]AB ALPINI CLASSICIANI
PRO PROVINC BRITA[...]
IVLIA INDI FILIA PACATA I[...]
The Aftermath of the Revolt
Following the revolt, during the last quarter of the first century, Londinium was rebuilt, spreading west to the hill across the Walbrook, and soon became transformed into a Roman city. The first forum and basilica, which included a small temple, was constructed out of timber in the Bank area, while two public baths were built on the west hill at Cheapside and Trinity Lane. Remodelling and refinement of these bathhouses continued into the late second century. The palace of the provincial governor was built c.80-100AD on the north bank of the Thames, just east of the Walbrook. Evidence of gold smelting was found beneath the Palace area. The original basilica and forum were replaced in the late-first/early-second century by more substantial stone buildings, wooden wharves were constructed on the north bank of the Thames, and the town soon became the centre of both provincial government and trade.
RIB8 - Fragmentary honorific inscription
The Hadrianic Fort
A large Fort was contructed sometime between 100AD and 120AD, possibly in preparation for Hadrians visit to Britain in 122AD. It was seemingly built into a grid of city streets already in existance which covered an area of around 330 acres. The fort measured about 750 x 705 feet (c.230 x 215 m) and its four-feet thick ragstone walls backed by an earthen rampart enclosed an area of around 12¼ acres (c.5 ha), sufficient to hold three or four legionary cohorts, between one-and-a-half to two-thousand soldiers. The Romans evidently thought London of such importance that they were willing to garisson ten percent of its British legionary forces here.
Shortly after the fort was built, perhaps around 125-30AD, part of the city was destroyed by fire. The conflagration was probably accidental for there is no evidence to support the theory that the damage was the result of an attack. Whatever the cause, it would seem that a number of large public works were undertaken to restore the fire-damaged sectors of the city.
Evidence for the Provincial Capital
By the early second century London had become the recognised capital of the Roman province of Britannia.
A wooden writing tablet has been found near the Walbrook, branded with a circular stamp which bears the words: BRIT PROV – DEDERVNT PROC AVG “The province of Britain – Issued by the imperial procurator”.
Roofing tiles: P.PR.BR.LON “The provincial procurator of Britain, at Londinium“.
A Sinking in the Thames
During the late second century Britain began to suffer attacks from hostile Picts, Scots and Saxons. These attacks rapidly increased in frequency and destruction, and would naturally have caused some concern in Londinium. Around this same period a boat containing a cargo of ragstone sank in the River Thames in the vicinity of Blackfriars. There is nothing to suggest that the sinking was anything more than an accident, but the same lack of evidence means that the possibility of the boat being involved in some sort of altercation with Saxon pirates also cannot be disproved.
City Defences Started
Around the turn of the third century the city defences were begun. The entire town was enclosed on it’s landward sides by a large ditch backed by a twenty-foot (six metre) high rampart wall which consisted of a ragstone facing with a rubble infill, bonded by several courses of flat bricks. Part of the defensive circuit of the existing Hadrianic fort was incorporated into the north-western perimeter of these city defences. Some parts of the wall itself can still be seen between the tall office buildings in the Bank area. In the mid-fourth century the remaining riverside wall was built, completely enclosing the city. Bastions were also added to the existing landward walls at this time.
The city wall was pierced by five large gates, through which superbly constructed roads reached out, arrow-straight through the surrounding countryside, linking Londinium with several nearby towns and beyond them, across the entire province. Surviving portions of these roads have been recorded during building work throughout modern times and their destinations are well known, but unfortunately none of the structures of the gates themeselves have survived. The locations of all the gates, however, have been preserved in the names of districts within the City of London; from Aldgate the road ran north-east to Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex), from Bishopsgate the road led north to Durovigutum (Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire), from Aldersgate the Watling Street ran north-west towards Verulamium (St. Albans, Hertfordshire), and the two roads from Newgate and Ludgate converged outside the city perimeter and ran westwards to Calleva Attrebatum (Silchester) (Silchester, Hampshire). London lay at the very hub of the Roman road system in Britain.
The late-third century saw the Roman empire torn apart by the struggles of several rebel generals who each claimed for themselves the right to be emperor. Emperor Constantinus Chlorus saved Londinium from rebels in 296AD, and after a century of upheaval, during which London suffered many attacks from Saxon raiders, in 410AD emperor Honorius refused British cities help in defending against invading forces, and Londinium was gradually abandoned.
References for Londinivm Avgvsta
- Chapter 3 of The Towns of Roman Britain by John Wacher (2nd Ed., BCA, London, 1995);
- Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966);
- The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
Map References for Londinivm Avgvsta
NGRef: TQ3281 OSMap: LR176/177; Londinium.
Roman Roads near Londinivm Avgvsta
Ermine Street: N (28) to Bravghing Stane Street: SSW (14) to Ewell (Surrey) NE (32) to Great Dvnmow (Essex) River Stort Downstream: N (23) to Harlow S (44) to Hassocks (West Sussex) Iter II/Watling Street: NW (11) to Svlloniacis ENE (14) to Dvrolitvm (Harold Wood, Romford, Greater London) W (18) to Pontes (Staines, Surrey) Watling Street: ESE (13) to Noviomagvs Cantiacorvm (Crayford, Greater London) SSW (17) to Titsey (Surrey) River Stort Downstream: N (23) to Old Harlow